Mariehamn, Åland / Why is Åland Autonomous?

Good morning everyone!

Åland is <cold>. The temperature on these little islands dips low at night, and I am glad I brought my hat with earflaps and chinstrap. I have had no need to wear my hat in Helsinki yet, but here in Åland it’s a necessity.

The small capital of Mariehamn is dead at night. What can I say, it’s deader than Guelph or London, Ontario at 8 p.m. The businesses close at 5 p.m. so when I arrived a little after 3 yesterday, I checked in to my Gästhem Kronan room, then cycled around and had an enormous dinner at Dixie Grill & Pizzeria. I explored the town and made plans for this morning. My room in Gästhem Kronan overlooks the west harbour, where the ferries come in. The backwards harbour sign (backwards, from my point of view) MARIEHAMN is right outside my window.

I already stopped in to a café and had the local breakfast specialty: Ålands Pannkaka, which are soft thick pancakes topped with whipped cream and strawberry sauce. I bought a postcard with its recipe on it, as well as a postcard with the recipe for another Åland delight, black bread. I will enjoy some of that bread at lunchtime.

The library here has a special room, like the Mississauga, Ontario, Library System’s Canadiana Collection, devoted to Åland in literature. Called the Alandica Rum, here you will find a wide assortment of nonfiction about the Ålands and fiction where the Åland location is featured prominently. I asked at the information bureau where the local bookstores are, and after I finish writing this mail I will check out these stores, in the hope of finding Åland literature in translation. The travel bureau had photo books and short Åland histories in English, but I would like some literature (fiction, preferably, which is odd coming from me, who rarely reads fiction) that captures the Åland spirit of independence.

Åland is an autonomous province of Finland, and has been Swedish-speaking for as far back as is known. The Ålands belonged to the Kingdom of Sweden right up to the 1808-09 war, when Sweden was forced to relinquish Finland and Åland to Russia. Åland then became part of the Grand Duchy of Finland. When the Russian Empire was disintegrating, meetings took place in Åland promoting the idea of reunification with Sweden. However, in December 1917, Finland declared itself an independent republic, and left the Russian Empire. The Finnish government was not prepared to comply with Åland’s demands, and instead offered a special form of self-government. This offer was rejected and the question of reunification with Sweden was referred to the League of Nations in 1921. The LoN decided that Finland should receive sovereignty over the Ålands, however Finland had to guarantee the islanders the status of Swedish as official language, and to ensure that local Swedish culture and customs were upheld and not supplanted by Finnish. Åland’s Autonomy Act has the right to pass laws (independent of Helsinki) in these areas: education, culture and preservation of ancient monuments; health and medical services; industry; internal communications; police; postal service; radio and television. Also, native Åland men are exempt from military service, which is required of all Finnish men. Åland is demilitarized.

The Åland flag resembles Sweden’s, except Åland’s yellow Nordic cross is outlined in red. I wonder what the red signifies. When the ferry docked at Långnäs yesterday, I was struck by the red dirt and asphalt. Could the red earth be the symbol for the red in the flag? I rode my bike the thirty kilometres to Mariehamn, and gazed in awe at the frozen amber ice ponds flanking the road. They were beautiful, and looked like fields of golden ice. The houses were mostly yellow and gabled, with a windmill or snowy field in front. About halfway along in my journey I came across four or five enormous white windmills, the kind you see all over Palm Springs, California. Åland is popular in the summer as a biker’s holiday destination, and the roads have bicycle paths. I rode on the road however, since the paths were totally covered with gravel and I felt that I would not risk a puncture if I rode on the road. Everyone cycles in Mariehamn, even in winter, and there is a bike path down the centre of the main street, with pedestrian paths flanking it. The “Yonge Street” of Mariehamn is car-free.

I am surely going to enjoy writing more personal tales on postcards this evening. Since the town shuts down early, I can come to the library afterward (the library closes at 8 p.m.), sit inside, write my cards, explore the collection and take pictures. I have already asked the library staff, and yes, photographs are permitted.

Åland is a treasure: small, strongly independent, everyone knows everybody, and visitors, rare in the wintertime, stick out like a sore thumb. I feel even more conspicuous because I don’t speak a word of Swedish.

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